New York Philharmonic EarShot Readings: Composer Spotlight – Max Grafe

SoundAdvice sits down with Max Grafe, one of the comopsers selected to participate in the New York Philharmonic EarShot Readings in June, part of the inaugural NY PHIL BIENNIAL. His piece, Bismuth: Variations for Orchestra, will be read on June 3, followed by feedback from the New York Philharmonic musicians, maestro Alan Gilbert, and mentor composers.

Photo Credit: Harrison Linsey

American Composers Orchestra: What was the inspiration for your piece that will be read at the New York Philharmonic EarShot Readings?  How has that been incorporated into the work?

Max Grafe: Bismuth: Variations for Orchestra was something of a departure for me in terms of its inspiration. The previous several pieces I had written were all heavily informed by distinctly extramusical sources, whether theater, literature, visual arts, ancient mythology, science, or a combination thereof. In conceiving of Bismuth, however, I made a conscious decision to write a piece with a higher degree of abstraction than the one to which I was accustomed: one where the content and narrative were determined not by an outside force, but solely according to their musical characteristics and implications. I decided that the most appropriate form for the piece to take in order to accomplish this goal was a theme and variations, although I adapted it from its traditional structure to suit my own musical proclivities. To wit, each variation is not necessarily directly upon the theme, but rather upon a salient feature of the variation that precedes it. Additionally, once the theme is restated at the midpoint of the piece, the preceding variations are revisited in reverse order in an effort to create a sense of musical symmetry. That symmetrical plan, in combination with the work’s colorful, angular, and varied musical style, led me to name it after the otherworldly geometry and many-hued patina of a pure bismuth crystal.

ACO: What were your first thoughts when you were chosen to participate in these Readings, which are part of the inaugural NY PHIL BIENNIAL?

MG: The news came during a time of complex emotions for me: in fact, on the same day that a close family member passed away after a long illness. Although this made the occasion decidedly bittersweet, I can’t remember ever being more elated at a piece of news, and I was grateful to have my family there to share in my excitement. Besides the initial shock, my first thoughts were ones of profound gratitude: toward the family members, friends, and mentors who helped me reach this point, for the opportunity to work with such a world-class ensemble as the Philharmonic, and for being chosen to be a part of such a groundbreaking event as the Biennial.

ACO: Since you were selected, have you further developed your piece? How have you been preparing yourself and your work for the Readings?

MG: I’ve made a few minor adjustments to the music itself, but most of my work since being selected has been focused on making the score and parts as professional and legible as possible. Our preliminary work with Bill Holab on engraving our music for maximum clarity was an important and valuable step in this process, and resulted in my making some substantial formatting changes–particularly to the score–in an effort to minimize ambiguity in my notation and make the most out of the limited page space available.

ACO: During the Readings your work will be workshopped with Alan Gilbert, mentor composers, and New York Philharmonic musicians. What do you hope to gain from this experience?

MG: I actually have rather little experience in writing for and working with orchestras. Bismuth is my first truly substantial orchestral work (aside from a few incomplete and marginally successful attempts), and this will be the first reading of my music by a professional orchestra. As such, I expect that the workshop sessions with maestro Gilbert, the mentor composers, and the orchestra musicians will provide a great deal of insight into both the musical and practical challenges of the orchestral medium. I’m sure that, for all the thought I’ve put into writing and engraving the piece, there are still issues waiting to blindside me, simply by virtue of my relative inexperience. However, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work through these issues with such a distinguished group of musicians and composers, and I can’t think of a better team to help me get a more secure grasp on the craft of writing for orchestral forces.

ACO: Is there anything you’d like the musicians who will read the work, or the audience that might hear it, to know about your piece in advance?

MG: Above all else, enjoy yourselves!

Hear Max Grafe’s Pavane and Galliard (2014) and see the score below:

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